It is very tempting and common, especially at the turn of a new millennium to say 'we are at the dawn of a new age', and a very cursory reading of The Secret Life Of Puppets could suggest that this is what the author is trying to argue. The book's subject, we are led to believe from the title, is a history of puppet theatre. The key word in the title, however, is 'secret' and the puppets of the title are the descendants of the ancient idols of the gods, worshiped and animated by their priests. Their secret life is of the history of their portrayal in literature, used as a vehicle to track the shifting literary and overriding paradigm of either Platonic or Aristotelian thought. We are as Nelson states in an era of Aristotelian (or episteme) thought, but the thesis of this book is that we are about to shift into an era of Platonic thought (or Gnosis).
Nelson also believes that the images of puppets and other simulacra have metamorphosed into the images of robots, cyborgs and androids that we see in modern science fiction. These, she believes, are modern day golems, and the magus' that created them have become the demiurgic scientists of film and book, with their long tradition that harks back to Mary Shelly's much maligned creator. The fact that Nelson must examine works of fantasy and science fiction along side alchemical texts, ancient and modern high literature is what, in my opinion, makes this book stand apart form almost every other book of this kind that I have read. The sources that Nelson draws upon are as diverse as can be imagined. A lengthy analysis of Bruno Shultz (Polish surrealist writer of the 30's) and H. P. Lovecraft (American pulp horror writer of the same period) both have full chapters dedicated to their work, as to do Umberto Eco, and Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. Each source is treated with equal respect and detail. As you might imagine this is a considerable breath of fresh air to a fan of fantasy, horror and sci-fi like myself. It is all too common that critics and the media deride such genres in general. Although it is inevitable that Nelson would examine these sources given her subject matter, the breadth of sources that she quotes shows that she is doing this with good reason rather than out of merely a desire for completeness. It raised a smile to think of people with little experience of such things searching out genre films such as Alex Proyas' Dark City or the Japanese Anime Ghost in the shell (used in chapters 12 and 11 respectively) on the strength of this book. I remain unsure however of exactly deeply Nelson delves into the genres, as a few of her sources that she quotes are not primary, for example she analyses Ghost in the shell from the Anime (animated film) rather than the Manga (comic book) it was biased on. This is probably the reaction of a genre fan however, and I cannot bring myself to be too harsh with the criticism. The book has many other sources, too many to list here in this review, but as I mentioned above all of them are treated with equality and concisely used. There is very little extraneous detail, but the topics that are covered within each chapter are diverse ways of examining the central theme.
The book draws towards the conclusion that the world of ideal forms first philosophised by Plato has been transformed in our minds to the virtual reality of cyberspace. The perfection that we sought and told tales of from the realms beyond sight we now seek in the worlds of the web. In closing it also states that it recognises that in truth, Platonic thought and Aristotelian thought should and can rest side by side, even though the proponents of those individual schools often fail to acknowledge this. To her credit, Nelson reminds of this at various points, such as mentioning that Gnostic assumptions of colour and appearance should not perhaps be over indulged in. With these gentle nudges of balance, the book shows it's true scholarly and philosophical credentials. This is a book that neatly crosses the worlds of academia and popular culture, for people familiar with either it will allow them to discover new fields that they perhaps thought beneath or above them, but for some-one familiar with both it is a fantastic way of seeing both in a new light.
This is an interesting book - it demonstrates how mankind's urge for God or need for the supernatural or however we should call it keeps breaking out and how, despite the almost universal triumph of materialism, these ideas are still there, embodied in various aspects of popular culture - film, novels etc. It is a valuable insight and, as a work, complements Jeffrey J Kripal's book on American comics, Mutants and Mystics. But it is a bit hard going and it does use a lot of technical language - a bit like a PhD thesis. So you need to be prepared to work at it, but it is rewarding if you do so. The author mentions Frances Yates at whose feet I used to sit. Yates could make this sort of material sing - a different world.